John Stuart Mill on Benevolent Dictators

Link to Wikipedia article on Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister of Singapore for 30 years

John Stuart Mill was more favorable to paternalism than many might think. (Since for his time, he was a Feminist, it might also be called maternalism.) As the surprising 10th paragraph of the “Introductory” to On Liberty indicates, he is willing to extend principles for the treatment of minor children to whole nations: 

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

Many have seen racism in this paragraph. But everyone who objected to George W. Bush’s optimism about nation-building and democracy-building in the Middle East is coming from a similar place. Only slightly more starkly, if the alternatives for a given nation are dictatorship or genocide, dictatorship is to be preferred. I don’t see those as the only two options very often, but I do think it might be common for the only realistic alternatives for a nation to be dictatorship, genocide, ethnic cleansing in the sense of forcible removal, or a long-lasting, expensive, controversial, foreign occupation.

Despite my leeriness about the end of the sentence this is in, I think John Stuart Mill is right in saying “The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them.” 

I often think of the difficulties that the leaders of China face. I have not been shy of criticizing them (1, 2), but I also recognize that there is no easy answer to the dilemmas they face. What would I do if I were in their shoes? I would allow freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press and religion, and institute free elections at the local level quickly, but I would be afraid of free elections at the regional level for fear that would lead to civil war, and afraid that trying to have free national elections would lead to greater nationalism along the lines of Vladimir Putin in Russia. In “Why Thinking about China is the Key to a Free World,” I point to the paradox that since people love freedom, a benevolent dictatorship, to be benevolent, would have to give people freedom. 

For improving the world we live in today, one of the most important tasks is figuring out what compromises are the right ones to make in getting from an unfree government to a free government without disaster along the way such as genocide or war. We must face the truth of what is possible and what is not–whatever that truth is–even when making decisions about freedom.  

See links to other John Stuart Mill posts collected here.